Maximizing the Genealogy Research Negative Space

February 16, 2012 at 2:23 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies | Leave a comment
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So much of discussion about genealogy research is about “finding.”  How to find, where to find, and best practices in finding. Why? Because we’re eager to identify positive results that lead to a better understanding of our ancestors.  We anxiously look to find answers, and we often feel that the absense of “finding” is “losing” as in losing time or wasting effort in our pursuits.

The Negative Space

Unfortunately, the often uncelebrated, unappreciated negative space is overlooked.  The negative space that I’m referring to is the blank, white paper around the letters on a page.  It is the dark, black night sky around the brilliant stars.  And for genealogists it is the pile of books, list of websites, hours of late night searching that did not result in a clear cut answer.  Negative space is the boundaries upon which your answer – the positive result – you’re looking for is framed.  It does have value, even importance in shaping the answers we ultimately seek.

The Value of Negative Space

Negative space is a rich learning environment.  It is where you can make mistakes, try new techniques, learn about new resources, ask the improbable questions and learn.  The value is in the learning that you gain from today that you can apply tomorrow.  The value is in the newly won knowledge that you can share with others.  On a whim you check a county history for information on your ancestor’s military service.  It isn’t there, but you take a couple minutes to see what else is found in a county history.

Negative space is a shaping tool.  It tells you where the answers are not – or at least they aren’t there today.  You know as you pursue your research you have information that the ancestor in question isn’t showing up in the tax lists in Virginia in the time period in question.  That points you to further questions.  Is he not there?  Or is he not paying taxes for some reason – not old enough, not an owner of property, etc.  The negative space frames the conversation you’re having in your head more specifically and quite productively.

Negative space is a door opener. So, you don’t find the answer in the book or other resource you’re working with.  Does the resource point you to other resources?  Does it have a bibliography in the back with other materials that may be valueable?  Does it mention other record types (published genealogies, birth, marriage, death records, military records) that have potential?  Maybe it points you to another repository that you never heard of before.  There could be a local historical society or a cemetery or a university archive that may have just the answers you are for.

Negative Space Only Has Value When

As you can see, I think there is a lot of value to negative space.  It’s perfectly okay to not find.  It’s part of the journey in so many ways.  But, negative space only has value when you record it.  As a master of looking at the same resource repeatedly and still not finding the answer to the same question, I have learned the hard way to record “negative finds.”  Make a note, start a running list, open a spreadsheet or whatever works for you to list every place you’ve looked and not found.  Bonus points if you make comments about your negative find – what were you looking for, what questions did the negative find stir up, and where could you go from here.

In Conclusion –

So let’s hear it for the white space, the negative finds that make the road to genealogy research success so rich and rewarding.  It’s the answer you’ve been looking for all along.


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